Those who think there is one silver bullet to fix the newspaper business are mistaken. Newspapers have almost always had multiple streams of revenue to support themselves and the future will likely not be any different. That doesn’t mean, however, that the money-making models’ newspapers will use on the web will look the same as the ones they have used for print.
Newspapers are struggling financially, but ad revenue is predicted to recover slightly in 2010. The underlying issues are not just business-driven but include issues of structure, culture and the industrialized foundations of distributing newspapers. This list is not a comprehensive one, but these are some of the things that newspaper leaders should be considering. And though print itself may not survive, the organizations behind them provide value to a democratic society, often covering and providing news that blogs with more limited resources can’t always dig up. We welcome comments below with other suggestions of things you think newspaper leaders should try or invest in. Let’s have some dialogue about this topic.
1. Putting web first and reporting from multiple platforms
That might seem like a no-brainer, but this fact is a double-edged sword. Newspapers are often still treating their websites as an afterthought because their advertising revenue is largely still coming from print. At the same time, the shift to getting more revenue from websites won’t happen until the websites are the first priority.
Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, said one of the issues is that reporters have been given a job description that revolves around a single platform (i.e. print journalist) when really journalists need to conceive of the editorial act apart from questions of platforms.
Ultimately, the word “print” needs to be removed from the role of print journalists, said Kevin Sablan, leader of the Orange County Register’s web task force. Reporters need to focus on primarily gathering information and how to present that information in multiple formats: websites, mobile platforms, social networks and finally print.
The reason? Technology is changing the way people consume news, and though many are still getting their news through traditional print outlets, many others are shifting to get their news through various media, such as television, mobile phones, and the web. Ryan Sholin, director of news innovation at Publish2, a company that specializes in link journalism, said journalists now have to be ready to produce journalism on multiple platforms, whether that is tweeting a headline, uploading a video through their iPhone or something else – journalism comes in all shapes and sizes.
2. Go Niche
The mass-broadcasting model just doesn’t seem to work as well on the web. More and more, people are finding value in the specific subjects or areas they find most interesting or that impact them directly. The vertical supply chain of newspapers, an industrialized model of a collection of sectioned news stuffed into one paper, is simply becoming less valuable to more people, said Stowe Boyd, managing director of Microsyntax.org, a nonprofit investigating the embedding of structured information in microstreaming applications like Twitter.
“We are seeing more fragmentation and specialization,” Boyd said. “How many successful bloggers do you know that write about everything?” Newspapers need to figure out what they do well and report on that, he said, using Politico.com, which focuses on political news, as an example.
Paul Bradshaw, senior lecturer in online journalism at Birmingham City University and a media consultant, also said newspapers need to go more niche and perhaps start publishing less frequently and charging more. He expects newspapers to move into the direction of magazines with the higher quality news while using their websites for high turnover news.
3. Offer unique content in print
Bradshaw’s point speaks to the idea that newspapers need to stop treating their websites as a dumping ground for print stories and treat each somewhat independently, carefully selecting the stories better suited for each media.
What this looks like is having the physical newspaper focus on less time-sensitive news and instead more analytical stories, said Mathew Ingram, communities editor of The Globe and Mail. This also means adding context to the news that has been posted, shared and retweeted online.
The same concept applies to the web, which Nieman Journalism Lab contributor Gina Chen points out, needs to offer more than just news, but services and resources for readers in that community (see point 11 on the potential revenue from this). This also changes the roles of journalists quite a bit.
4. Journalists as curators and contextualizers
The link economy is very real and the time to invest is now. The brutal reality is that currently, newspapers own less than 1 percent of U.S. online audience page views and time spent. Linking to other articles and curating information will not only be helpful to readers but make newspapers more visible on the web.
Sholin from Publish2 said journalists need to curate social media to find out what the news is and verify what is real and what is not from all the information out there, which isn’t always reliable. This also means simply sharing what’s out there on the web, Sholin said. The NYTimes.com Bits blog does this by incorporating a “What We’re Reading” widget that was developed by Publish2. Of course, there are plenty of other options available for integrating a similar feature into a website.
The print edition of a newspaper can serve to contextualize the news that has been posted, shared and retweeted online, Sablan said. “It can include a cohesive narrative presentation of the disjointed bits that floated around disparate streams and blogs the day before,” he said.
Journalists need to move away from being “processors of information” to contextualizers, Bradshaw said. In the old industrialized model, he explained, journalists simply processed raw material into an article or a broadcast in a market that they also had a monopoly on, but in today’s networked model the raw material is available to the former audience, which is taking on the role of the reporter, as are the sources themselves.
5. Real-time reporting integration
Social media is allowing the audience and “the people are formerly known as sources” to report themselves. For example, the Fire Department in New York City used a live video stream on their website to broadcast the rescue efforts following the recent Hudson River air collision live from a helicopter, allowing visitors to the site to comment via chat next to the feed. They had more than 300 viewers watching and chatting as the news unfolded and often times those viewers had the news first. They were, after all, the source that a lot of the other media outlets were getting their information from.
“The means of production are available to everyone. The distribution network is available to everyone,” Bradshaw said. “Rewriting a press release just doesn’t hack it anymore.” If sources are able to report news themselves, the bar is raised for news organizations to adopt and integrate real-time reporting on their websites.
Twitter is likely the good target for newspaper websites to focus in on and harness. Breaking news stories are usually huge traffic generators for any site. But now when news breaks it is happening on Twitter, Boyd said. Boyd points out that some TV news organizations have incorporated Twitter into their live shows, and the key will be for newspapers to figure out how to integrate it into their websites and news operations.
Gauging the most effective option is difficult because each has its faults. If a news organization features its Twitter feed on the site, it has the potential of repeating content that is already in a story. Further, if a newspaper site is using an unfiltered hashtag feed then it has the challenge of dealing with spam and poor quality tweets. It seems that currently, Twitter feeds are featured on blogs as a whole, like this one from USA Today, but not on specific news pages or stories.
6. Internal culture: Startup vs. corporate
Many newspapers today are built around a very corporate and bureaucratic structure. There are a reporter and an editor and an editor’s editor and the editor of all editors, and well, you get the point. Scott Porad, CTO of Pet Holdings, points out that the problem with corporate environments is that 80 percent of the time is spent planning and only 20 percent is spent doing. While at his startup only 5 percent is spent planning and 95 percent is spent doing. Mark Briggs recently wrote a great post on how one might create a startup culture in the newsroom.
Sholin from Publish2 also thinks newspapers should structure themselves around more of a startup model, rather than current corporate bureaucracies. Sholin compared the newspaper industry to the Titanic because it is headed straight for an iceberg and can’t seem to turn fast enough because of the layers of bureaucracy and the opinions that often halt change. And though completely restructuring a large news organization may not be possible, at least not overnight, creating a startup-like environment that encourages innovation in the newsroom can be.
7. Encourage innovation
Part of having a startup culture includes an environment that encourages innovation, such as Google’s “20 percent time” rule that allows engineers to work on side projects they are passionate about, which has resulted in Google products like AdSense, Orkut and more.
Sholin from Publish2 points out that some newspapers are doing this by creating teams that experiment and take risks. The Guardian in the U.K. hosted its second “Hack Day” in July, which brought journalists and developers from the company and from the outside to see what they could create in just 24 hours. The results ranged from the useful to the amusing. If newspapers had started innovating in the early days of the web and experimenting with new tools, then who knows how the industry might have evolved. Maybe a newspaper would have been responsible for recreating the online classifieds system rather than Craigslist.
8. Charging for quotes is not the answer
The Associated Press signed a deal with iCopyright that will help them track and charge for unauthorized use of its content. This hasn’t sat well with readers and has been criticized by members of the journalism industry, including the President of Media at Thomson Reuters Chris Ahearn. He wrote a response in which he outlined his support for the so-called “link economy,” which the AP’s deal with iCopyright goes against.
In an interview, Ahearn explained further and said that he believes media is a dialogue and linking and appropriate excerpting is part of that dialogue. Anytime someone links, it is a chance to gain another loyal reader, Ahearn said. Also, he said, it adds value to the news story and strengthens the relationship readers have with the publisher.
Bradshaw agreed: “Some magical meta-tagging technology that allows you to charge people for quoting your material is insane.”
9. Investing in mobile: E-Readers or smartphones?
Aside from the fact that more people are getting smartphones and using them to stay connected to the news, there is also some potential for money to be made. Apparently, news organizations are catching on, becoming the fastest growing iPhone application category.
And then there is the buzz about Amazon’s Kindle being a potential savior for newspapers. Sholin from Publish2 said he thinks both platforms are promising but thinks it is still too early to tell. However, he said that there are plenty of people willing to pay for the mobile apps and some news organizations are kicking themselves for not thinking of charging to download from the beginning. Another option, he said, is for news organizations to consider pursuing partnerships with carriers that would automatically include the news app on the phones, making it easily accessible. Sholin is also fancied by e-readers like the Kindle and thinks the upcoming Apple tablet could be the “short-term winner.”
Ingram from The Globe and Mail said whether it’s on a smartphone or on an e-reader like the Kindle, each technology has the potential of bringing value to newspapers.
Bradshaw said he doesn’t believe the Kindle is the right option, referring to it as “a branch to snap on the way to the bottom.”
The opinions seem mixed, but because so many people are already using their smartphones for other purposes, pursuing that platform may be the better option.
10. Communicating with readers
It doesn’t make sense for readers to not be able to comment on news stories online, but yet many newspapers still either don’t have the feature on the site, don’t use it, or have various rules to which stories allow comments and which do not. It makes sense that in many cases it is because the comments are vulgar or of low quality, but a clear line and definition of what stories have commented have not yet been drawn.
Stowe Boyd said newspaper websites have a lot of catching up to do in this area. “People have been commenting for a long time online and it is a long time [for newspapers] to have avoided doing that,” Boyd said. After all, Boyd said comments do lead to more page views.
It isn’t just the comments. A lot of the social media news accounts are used like RSS feeds without any interaction with the audience. But social media can be a great tool for earning trust with your audience. Bradshaw said that individuals, not institutions, most effectively use social media, and so the role of the journalist in distribution becomes more important. He said eventually journalists will be expected to engage readers through comments, blogs, Twitter, etc., or it will be done by dedicated community managers.
“The one thing most likely to make the public value newspapers is newspapers valuing the public,” Bradshaw said.
Ingram from The Globe and Mail agreed that in general journalists should be doing more interacting with the public, to build trust. “So that they can help us do our jobs,” Ingram said.
11. Building community
Newspaper websites are no longer expected to just provide news, but also to create community. Some newspapers are harnessing social media platforms to achieve this goal. Whether creating a Facebook Fan Page, a LinkedIn group or a Twitter account, newspapers are using social media in an attempt to create a community of readers. Developers like Jeff Reifman, founder of NewsCloud, which creates community-based Facebook applications that aggregate news, are aware of the changing model of the news industry as well and are trying to take advantage. (Disclosure: I helped launch and managed the content for one of NewsCloud’s Facebook applications at a previous job).
Reifman’s most recent Seattle-based application “The Needle” includes features like a hand-selected Twitter feed of Seattle tweets, a place to post stories that users find interesting and a place to post items users want to share, all aimed at building community among users in Seattle.
“News organizations should stop thinking of themselves as just a news publisher. News sites have to deliver a community town center online,” Reifman said. “Creating community, creates a loyal relationship with your readers.”
In fact, The Charlotte Observer has launched their own Facebook application called “Zip,” though it doesn’t include quite as many features as NewsCloud’s usual apps.
12. To paywall or not to paywall – that is the question
There isn’t a clear-cut answer for whether newspaper websites should charge for online content and if they should, what the best model is. Whether a subscription based model or a pay-per-article model, each has some serious implications. However, some think that there has been enough talking and that newspapers should go ahead and charge for online content. Rupert Murdoch, CEO, and founder of News Corp. is planning to start charging readers for online content for all of the company’s news websites, starting with The Sunday Times in November.
Chris Ahearn from Thomson Reuters said the better question for newspapers to consider is how to create value for readers and provide services that people are willing to pay for. He said Thomson Reuters focuses on providing services that are valuable to people and the majority of the company’s revenue is from subscription-based products.
Bradshaw from Birmingham City University said more adaptable news companies will understand the value is not in the news, but information about news, i.e. data. “So the likes of the Guardian’s Open Platform, The New York Time’s API and Reuters’ Open Calais will become broader programs for users rather than destinations for audiences,” he said.
Stowe Boyd from Microsyntax.org said newspapers have to figure out what users are willing to pay for and that an overarching model may not work. News sites should offer readers to subscribe or pay for certain areas of interest, like sports, politics, etc. that they value on the site.
Another unexplored area for newspapers is the possibility of generating revenue from social media. Social media has been helping newspapers in various ways, but Sablan from the Orange County Register said he hasn’t seen any newspapers using social media for the express purpose of making money directly, but that in the current state of the industry, all possible sources of revenue need to be explored. “It would be great if newspapers could figure out a successful business around social networking,” Sablan said.
What does the future hold?
But there is yet one consideration and question that remains:
Will websites replace newspapers? Here’s what the experts think.
“Based on the decades-old myth of the paperless office, I don’t expect printed news to go away within my lifetime.” – Kevin Sablan
“I don’t think websites will ever completely replace newspapers. I think there will always be people who want the printed version for a variety of reasons, including convenience, portability, etc.” – Mathew Ingram
“No. Newspapers as a platform has several advantages over the web, both technical and cultural, and they are flexible enough to adapt in response. The big difference is they’ll have to adapt economically as well, which is why they’ll suffer more than they did with the advent of radio, TV, etc.” – Paul Bradshaw